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A "Discussion" Play

A "Discussion" Play

George Bernard Shaw’s literary career spanned the first half of the twentieth century; his first play, Widower’s House, was written in 1892, his last, Shakes Versus Shaw, in 1949, a year before his death in 1950 at the age of 94. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. Although he was born in Ireland, Shaw spent most of his adult life in England, and most of his work was produced on the English stage. His best-known plays continue to be widely performed: Man and SupermanMajor BarbaraPygmalion (from which the highly successful My Fair Lady was adapted), and St. Joan. Less well-known, Misalliance (1910) falls chronologically in the middle of these plays.

Misalliance is one of Shaw’s “discussion” plays, a dramatic genre that was introduced and perfected by the playwright. He has been both lauded and criticized for his emphasis on dialogue over plot and action, that is, for his emphasis on discussion. In fact, even one of his own characters, Hypatia herself, the locus of sexual vitality in Misalliance, becomes a stalwart critic of “talk, talk, talk!” (Misalliance [New York: Bretano’s, 1914], 134. All future quotations from this play will be referenced by page number in this text.)

Yet, Shaw was a playwright with a purpose. And even though he was among the first to seek a wider audience for his plays by publishing them for a reading as well as a viewing public, admirers and detractors alike know very well that Shaw had a keen knowledge of the stage and dramatic action, as well as a fine sense for comedy. Clearly, his plays carried a message, or rather, several messages, most of which stemmed from his quarrel with the ills wrought by capitalism and his fervor for socialism. Nonetheless, his best plays reveal that a discussion can evoke dramatic tension as effectively as plot complications and conflicts.

It would be incorrect, therefore, to confuse the discussion play with the “closet drama,” a genre intended for a reading audience only. Rather, Shaw presumes that “ideas can be as dramatic as love-making or murder on the stage; for action to be dramatic, it need not be overt (Eldon C. Hill, George Bernard Shaw [Boston: Twayne, 1978], 66). He takes on a variety of topics, or discussions: sexuality, marriage, the parent-child relationship, social classes, gender all of which fall under the super heading of capitalism.

Yet, while the idea takes precedence over the plot, Shaw’s flair for the dramatic prevents his plays from becoming static. A plane crash on stage and a gun-wielding clerk, both of which incidents occur at precisely the moment the audience has begun to agree with Hypatia about “talk, talk, talk,” and both of which replace the old complications with new ones, reveal, for example, Shaw’s theatrical instinct in Misalliance.

The misalliance suggested in the title is specifically that of the engaged couple: Hypatia, the vital daughter of the wealthy middle-class Tarletons (he has made his fortune in men’s underwear, or rather, by producing a line of men’s undergarments) and Bentley, nicknamed Bunny, the weak, simpering son of the aristocrat, Lord Summerhays.

The play involves the breaking up of this misalliance via the complication of the plane crash (no one is injured) and the subsequent entrance of the pilot, Joey Percival (coincidentally a school chum of Bentley) and his passenger, Lina Szczepanowska, a Polish trapeze artist and acrobat, for whom risking one’s life is not only a daily occurrence, but a creed to which she strictly adheres.

On a grander scale, however, everything is misallied. Early in the play, when Johnny Tarleton reminds Bentley that the elder Tarletons are evaluating his fitness to be their daughter’s spouse, Shaw introduces a number of his themes: “The match isnt (in quoting from Misalliance, I am adhering to Shaw’s unique spelling style, in which he eliminated apostrophes except where the practice might create confusion) settled yet; dont forget that. Youre on trial in the office because the Governor [Johnny’s and Hypatia’s father] isnt giving his daughter money for an idle man to live on her. Youre on trial here because my mother thinks a girl should know what a man is like in the house before she marries him” (6). The close association of money, marriage, and parental control in a speech faily early on in the play sets the stage for the development of these themes as the work progresses and the rest of the characters are introduced.

Through the male characters especially, Misalliance “examines the various social classes to reveal that no existing group is worthy to take over the country, or capable of doing so” (J. L. Wisenthal, Shaw’s Sense of History [Oxford: Clarendon, 1988], 145). As representatives of their respective social classes, they all possess dubious qualities, from the aristocratic Summerhays to the proletarian clerk, Gunner. Not one class in this play stands out as a shining example to the others. It is not that they’re morally bankrupt; rather, their superficialities and pettinesses, along with (Gunner excepted) their high regard for money, render them vacuous and clearly ineffective members of society.

Lord Summerhays and Bentley are true representatives of the English aristocracy. The lord is a philanderer and has used his high rank and political position to seduce women. Bentley is, in the words of Mrs. Tarleton, “overbred, like one of those expensive little dogs” (19). The bourgeois Mr. Tarleton generously contributes money to his causes, particularly the free lending library, but is utterly astonished to find that someone could get an idea or two from the books therein. Well read himself, it has never occurred to him that the content of such books can actually influence the way one thinks and acts. His constant admonition to others to read Jefferson, read Ibsen, read Mill reveals that he has little understanding of what he has read and is completely incapable of making a link between life and literature. The son Johnny is the prototypical “all brawn and no brains” and proud of it.

Gunner, whose name is an expedient invention and reference to the weapon he brandishes, is at once the most comic and the most pitiful. His feeble and anguished attempts to right the wrong done to his mother by Mr. Tarleton’s dalliance with her reveal the total inadequacy of the Marxian proletariat to revolt against the classes that control them. Gunner is caught between affirming his manhood by saying “damn,” and being so frightened by Percival’s feigned gesture of violence that he threatens to call the police. His final acceptance of the nurturing offered by Mrs. Tarleton suggests that the proletariat could be soothed by a bit of mothering, by being treated as human beings.

The women in Misalliance fare better, as they usually do in a Shaw play. That is, women are generally the challengers of the status quo, and often, by challenging their gender roles, manage to cut across and through other barriers as well. Of the three (they are outnumbered by the men two to one), Mrs. Tarleton appears the most conventional. She is the only one, however, who empathizes with Gunner and calls to a halt that chiding he has received from the other men. The link between one human being and another is motherhood, clearly a missing link among the men, Shaw suggests. Gunner’s mother had come to Mrs. Tarleton when she was “in trouble.” Remembering the incident, Mrs. Tarleton says to Gunner “(with an effusion of tenderness) And you here being treated like that, poor orphan, with nobody to take your part! Tear up that foolish paper, child; and sit down and make friends with me” (83). Thus, although Mrs. Tarleton challenges social convention less than the other two women, her character remains strong; she is totally responsible for reversing the volatile situation with Gunner and restoring a modicum of equilibrium among the men.

The daughter, Hypatia, or Patsy to her family, is, as I have said, the locus of sexual vitality in the play. Even so, it is a bit difficult to comprehend what Shaw meant when he created this character. Her plea is to live a life of action, to have experience. She is bored by the constant “cackle, cackle, cackle” of her elders. She boldly seduces Joey Percival while she is engaged to Bentley, and cares neither for the fact of the engagement or for Percival’s protests of impropriety. When Percival fends her off by protesting “Give me the blessed protection of a good stiff conventionality among thoroughly well brought up ladies and gentlemen,” she responds:

Hypatia. Another talker! Men like convention because men made them. I didn’t make them: I dont like them. I wont keep them. Now what will you do?

Percival. Bolt. (He runs out through the pavilion.)

Hypatia. I’ll catch you. “She dashes off in pursuit.)

The curious part of her character, however, is that once she has caught him she reverts to the middle class standards by which she has been raised and implores her father: “Papa: buy the brute for me” (95), which he does, much to the satisfaction to all involved. Thus, by challenging her gender role, Hypatia gets her man and is saved from what would have been a dreadful marriage to Bentley. But she does not reach beyond the values of her class. Even though she is irresistible to both Percival and the audience alike, the question remains: is her “buying” the man of her dreams a reversal of gender roles or a regression back into the bourgeois society she has challenged?

If Hypatia represents the sexual vitality of the play, Lina Szczepanowska is clearly emblematic of the Shavian life force. By the time Lina enters the play, Shaw has already demonstrated that impossibility of change and revitalization from the men and from within the system. Her entrance onto the stage, dressed in the attire of a flyer, confuses both the characters and the viewers about her gender. It is naturally assumed by all that she is a man; she has been involved in a man’s pastime, flying, and she is dressed like a man. As she removes her helmet, however, she is revealed to be a very beautiful woman, as well as a physically strong one; she spends a good deal of the play displaying this strength by rescuing herself and Percival from the crash, for example, and carrying Bentley around over her shoulder. Her literal strength symbolizes the infusion of new life from without, from, that is, a woman and a foreigner. Lina presents her own tirade against English social customs as an interesting counterpart to Hypatia’s “purchase”: “I am strong: I am skilful: I am brave: I am independent: I am unbought. . . . And this Englishman [Johnny Tarleton]! this linendraper! he dares to ask me to come live with him in this rrrrrrabit hutch, and take my bread from his hand, and ask him for pocket money, and wear soft clothes, and be his woman! Sooner than that I would stoop to the lowest depths of my profession” (103).

The successful ending of the play has Lina giving Bentley a hearty slap on the back as she plans to show him daring, adventure, and terror in the world beyond the stuffy English estate. As the strongest, Lina, enfolds the weakest, Bentley, then there is the sense that all the lives in Misalliance have been changed.

As Robert F. Whitman tells us: “If politics and religion and morality and even reason have proved sterile and corrupt, if they have brought us down the wrong road, or if they have simply become the tools of selfish men, the solution is not to throw them on the dust heap, but to make them work for the good of humanity. He speaks to us in tones not of despair or lamentation, but of anger and renewed vigor. A man [or, in the case of Misalliance, a woman] with an idea and a conviction possess the strength of ten, Shaw never minds telling us; and he was not one to be caught short without an idea. (Shaw and the Play of Ideas [Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977], 24).

It is thus that the play Misalliance concludes. Having challenged and satirized relationships on all levels of a capitalist society, Shaw realigns his characters to the satisfaction of all, audience included. The play of ideas, the discussion play, has entertained and sustained and will continue to do so as long as the social and relational problems he criticized remain.